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The peer-review process is old. I wonder when anonymous peer review appeared and more importantly what the motivations behind it were (vs. non-anonymous peer review).

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  • $\begingroup$ I guess this is not a duplicate of this question: hsm.stackexchange.com/questions/167/… The other one only asks when. This one asks why, which I would be interested in hearing more about. $\endgroup$ – Ben Crowell Feb 9 '15 at 22:34
  • $\begingroup$ @BenCrowell Also, this question focuses on anonymous peer review :) $\endgroup$ – Franck Dernoncourt Feb 9 '15 at 22:45
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    $\begingroup$ Great question. It would also be valuable to know what the rationale behind the implementation was, and if anyone actually tested whether it was actually having the outcomes that were originally hoped for. Especially in light of views like this. $\endgroup$ – naught101 Apr 1 '15 at 4:24
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I believe that in the 1930s, peer-review was mostly done directly by editors-as-peers. This belief is based on this letter by Albert Einstein to the Physical Review, 1936:

Dear Sir, We (Mr. Rosen and I) had sent you our manuscript for publication and had not authorized you to show it to specialists before it is printed. I see no reason to address the in any case erroneous comments of your anonymous expert. On the basis of this incident I prefer to publish the paper elsewhere.

Respectfully,

P.S. Mr. Rosen, who has left for the Soviet Union, has authorized me to represent him in this matter.

This seems to indicate that Einstein, who publied about 300 papers in the first half of the 20th century, was unfamiliar with anonymus peer-reviewing (for the sake of the story, it turned out the reviewer's opinion was right on this matter).

Nature documents the introduction of a formal, anonymous, systematic peer-review system in 1967, mainly to deal with the accumulation of unpublished-yet-not-rejected papers. Before this, reviewing was performed by editors, eventually seeking for advice outside.

From what I have read on the subject, it seems to me that non-anonymous peer review never really existed: today's peer review is derived from reviewing comities in publications, that were allowed to evolve into more flexible, distributed reviewing groups in the 60s/70s because both of the possibility of doing it (Xerox copier comes to mind) and the necessity of doing it (to face accumulation of paper, as stated in Nature example above). Nobody ever thought of giving the name of the reviewers, are they were not considered important. There are trends today to make the reviewing process more anonymous (double-blind, the reviewer doesn't know who is the author) and less anonymous (disclosing the name of the reviewers), but I don't believe the system will change in a close future, as there is no consensus in the scientific community about this.

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We can find the first peer review procedures as early as the mid-19th century when the importance of scientific journals increased. As Aileen Fyfe and Noah Moxham could show in their analyses of the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society (2019) and Alex Ciscar in his book on scientific journals (2018), first referee-reports can be found as early as 1832. In 1865,

refereeing was a well-established practice at the Royal Society and some similar societies, but it was rarely used by nonsociety journals or any journal where speed of publication was prioritized. [Fyfe, Moxham:2019]

In 1856, Adam Sedgwick complained to the board of the Geological Society that the board had rejected his paper based on the anonymous (and seemingly established) review of the Council, which he then called "dogmatic". The president defends the procedure in the editorial of the journal, since they had, in fact, not rejected the paper but asked to alter/leave out a small passage. (Quarterly Journal of the Geological Society of London, Vol. 12 (1856), p. XVLI) By then, Sedgwick had already published the paper elsewhere, causing some uproar which shows us, that this practise, too, was known and frowned upon at that time.

The anonymous peer-review is also closely related to the tradition of anonymous reviews in general, which should give the reviewer's words more weight becoming the voice of the scientific community or the journal etc. Anonymity should also guarantee security for the reviewer and avoid open discussions doubting the decisions. In Britain, the importance of anonymous reviews increased in the 19th century, due to the fact that open scientific debates were restricted (Barton 2016). This fact, closely related to the traditions of learned societies such as the Royal Society, to not pass much information about intern procedures in general, make the anonymous peer-review a logical step.

I have not come across open reviews in the long 19th century so far, though, and would be very surprised, if so, by the aforesaid reasons.

  • Fyfe, A. & Moxham, N. (2019), Managing the Growth of Peer review at the Royal Society Journals, 1865-1965.
  • Csiszar, A. (2018), The Scientific Journal. Authorship and the Politics of Knowledge in the Nineteenth Century. The University of Chicago Press.
  • Barton, R. (2018), The X Club. Power and Authority in Victorian Science. The University of Chicago Press.
  • Fyfe, A. (2020, forthcoming), Editors, Referees and Committees. Distributing editorial work at the Royal Society journals in the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries. In: Centaurus.
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